Anglers know Spain’s River Ebro as the “catfish capital of Europe” because of its giant wels catfish. English fisherman Ditch Ballard provided another story for that legendary river when he hooked a massive catfish on a freezing February night.
Ballard was targeting carp while fishing from his small boat when he hooked the heavy fish. It deeply bent his 10-foot rod and scorched line off his reel. The experienced angler, who operates Ebro Mad Cats fishing service, knew he’d hooked a giant wels catfish.
Realizing the fish would run far and deep, Ballard untied his 12-foot aluminum boat to follow it. Thus began the most memorable fish fight of his life.
The catfish towed Ballard along the River Ebro as he struggled to fight through sub-zero temperatures.
“The next hour was simply painful, as my muscles fatigued and the adrenaline wore off,” Ballard wrote in a Facebook post. “My body temperature began to crash, and I found myself crouched in the bottom of the boat trying to hold on while shivering uncontrollably.
“At one point panic set in as I thought I could see my braid (line) fraying in the first rod guide, but on closer inspection it turned out to be icy slush forming in all the guides as the wet braid ran through under tension.”
Eventually, his leader knot showed above water, and Ballard knew the catfish was close. The fish had towed his boat nearly a mile.
Ballard put on frozen gloves and began hand-lining the big cat to the surface. He put all the pressure he could on the tiring fish.
“I needed this battle to be over one way or another,” Ballard wrote on Facebook. “So I just pulled with all I had left in me. Each time the fish ran I nearly lost a digit, as by this time my hands were so cold they weren’t really doing what my brain was telling them.”
Finally, an 8-foot-plus wels catfish surfaced, and Ballard managed to get a hand on its jaw.
“I was physically and mentally exhausted, but had to give one last push to secure my prize,” he wrote. “It was the biggest battle of my fishing career, yet I wouldn’t wish it on anyone!”
Sunrise came and white frost cloaked everything. He managed to land the catfish, laying it on a tarp where he measured and weighed it at 222 pounds. He released the fish unharmed.
While Ballard’s fish is a giant by any standard, it’s shy of the River Ebro record by 28 pounds. The International Game Fish Association all-tackle record for wels catfish is 297 pounds, 9 ounces, from Italy’s River Po. Attila Zsedely caught that fish in 2010.
About Wels Catfish
Wels are a huge variety of scaleless fish native to Europe and 80 pounders are common. According to IGFA, wels have been introduced to most of central and eastern Europe, and are also found throughout Asia Minor and central Asia, England, Tunisia, and Algeria. Wels mostly inhabit deep lakes and rivers, though they enter brackish water in the Baltic and Black Seas and spawn in the salt water of the Aral Sea.
These bottom-dwellers are voracious predators, feeding mostly on smaller fish, crayfish, and frogs. They also eat waterfowl, and there are tales of the massive cats attacking dogs and even small children.
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Wels are prized sport fish. Anglers mainly catch them with bait, but lures and trolling also work. Catfish fans also consider them good on the dinner plate, and their roe makes for a good caviar substitute.